Following the death of his parents when he was about 20, Anthony insured that his sister completed her education, then he sold his house, furniture, and the land he owned, gave the proceeds to the poor, joined the anchorites who lived nearby, and moved into an empty sepulchre. At age 35 he moved to the desert to live alone; he lived 20 years in an abandoned fort.
Anthony barricaded the place for solitude, but admirers and would-be students broke in. He miraculously healed people, and agreed to be the spiritual counselor of others. His recommendation was to base life on the Gospel. Word spread, and so many disciples arrived that Anthony founded two monasteries on the Nile, one at Pispir, one at Arsinoe. Many of those who lived near him supported themselves by making baskets and brushes, and from that came his patronage of those trades.
Anthony briefly left his seclusion in 311, going to Alexandria, Egypt to fight Arianism, and to comfort the victims of the persecutions of Maximinus. At some point in his life, he met with his sister again. She, too, had withdrawn from the world, and directed a community of nuns. Anthony retired to the desert, living in a cave on Mount Colzim.
Descriptions paint him as uniformly modest and courteous. His example led many to take up the monastic life, and to follow his way. Late in life Anthony became a close friend of Saint Paul the Hermit, and he buried the aged anchorite, leading to his patronage of gravediggers. His biography was written by his friend Saint Athanasius of Alexandria.
His relationship with pigs and patronage of swineherds is a little complicated. Skin diseases were sometimes treated with applications of pork fat, which reduced inflammation and itching. As Anthony’s intervention aided in the same conditions, he was shown in art accompanied by a pig. People who saw the art work, but did not have it explained, thought there was a direct connection between Anthony and pigs – and people who worked with swine took him as their patron.
“When Anthony was about eighteen or twenty years old, his parents died. Not six months after his parents’ death, as he was on his way to church for his usual visit, he began to think of how the apostles had left everything and followed the Savior, and also of those mentioned in the book of Acts who had sold their possessions and brought the apostles money for distribution to the needy. This was all in his mind when, entering the church just as the Gospel was being read, he head the Lord’s words to the rich man: “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor – you will have riches in heaven. Then come and follow me.” It seemed to Anthony that it was God who had brought the saints to his mind, and that the words of the Gospel had been spoken directly to him. Immediately he left the church, and gave away to the villagers all the property he inherited, about 200 acres of very beautiful and fertile land. He sold all his other possessions, as well, giving to the poor the considerable sum of money he collected. However, to care for his sister he retained a few things. He gave himself up to the ascetic life, not far from his own home. He did manual work because he had heard the words: “If anyone will not work, do not let him eat.” He spent some of his earnings on bread and the rest he gave to the poor. Seeing the kind of life he lived, the villagers and all the good men he knew called him the friend of God, and they loved him as a son and brother.”
– from the Life of Saint Anthony by Saint Athanasius
“Saint Anthony told his monks: When, therefore, they demons come by night to you and wish to tell the future, or say ‘We are the angels,’ give no heed, for they lieâ¦. But if they shamelessly stand their ground, capering and change their forms of appearance, fear them not, nor shrink, nor heed them as though they were good spirits. For the presence either of the good or evil by the help of God can easily be distinguished. The vision of the holy ones is not fraught with distraction: ‘For they will not strive, nor cry, nor shall anyone hear their voice’ (Matthew 12:19; Isaiah 42:2). But it comes quietly and gently that an immediate joy, gladness, and courage arise in the soul. For the Lord who is our joy is with them, and the power of God the Father.”
– Ambrose: Life of Saint Anthony
“The days are coming when men will go mad; and, when they meet a man who has kept his senses, they will rise up against him, saying, “You are mad, because you are not like us.”
– Saint Anthony